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Sunday, May 01, 2005

Arabic for Beginners 

As you read the following story, keep in mind that the Pentagon, in the last decade, has fired well over 300 translators and interpreters who were fluent in Arabic, Farsi and Korean. Why? Because they were gay:
A prosecution in New York unraveled after the government admitted that key evidence — a document that supposedly described one of the defendants as a senior terrorist leader — had been incorrectly translated by an Army language specialist.

A prosecutor in Detroit, unable to find a linguist through the FBI, found someone else to prepare a summary of more than 100 audiotapes used in a terrorism trial. The translator turned out to be a federal informant with a history of drug dealing — and to have terrorist ties.

And translators at the military prison for suspected terrorists at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, have been prosecuted for crimes, including mishandling sensitive documents. Now some of the translation work done for military tribunals at the prison is being reviewed for evidence that it might have been slanted to favor prosecutors.

These and other snafus reflect a quandary for the intelligence community: Despite a crash program since the Sept. 11 attacks, the effort to improve the nation's slim capacity to translate Arabic has achieved only modest results.

By some measures, the government is actually losing ground, because the volume of intelligence that the government sweeps up every day has increased sharply.

The inspector general of the Justice Department last year estimated that the number of terrorism-related documents needing translation had increased sevenfold in the first two years after the attacks . . . .

The FBI has been scrambling to recruit more translators, and has increased the number on its staff by about 60%, including many who speak Arabic. Nonetheless, it does not even pretend to be able to translate all the material it receives.

"It's like drinking water from a fire hose," said Kevin Hendzel, a government language contractor and official with the American Translators Association . . . .

Some experts say that it could take a decade or more before there are enough translators to meet demand, in part because the languages of Islamic terrorist groups — including dozens of regional dialects — are so hard to master.

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